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Wildlife photography is all about creating a connection with the subject and with your audience. One of the key components of your wildlife images is how well they capture the audience’s attention. One of the most effective ways to do that is to try and get down and shoot at eye-level with the subject. Please note that eye-level need not necessarily mean ground-level always. You could have a subject on a tree, rock, etc., so it’s not always essential to be at the ground-level but being at eye-level really helps.
Let’s see what difference is in an image when you shot from eye-level of the subject.
Purely from an attention-grabbing perspective, this renders the background totally blurred thus restricting the number of points vying for attention. As is seen in the image above, the image when taken from eye-level helps in drawing attention directly to the bird. Why does this happen, though? What causes the background to blur out?
Often in my workshops and tours, I suggest people that they should ask “Why?” for all concepts and tips. For the eye-level approach to wildlife photography, I again ask, “Why does this result in getting a cleaner background?” The answer might be obvious to a lot of you but for those others who are just starting their journey as photographers, the following question might help.
The obvious approach is to immediately get down to ground level and rest your head on the floor. But why does that help? It helps simply because by changing your perspective you change the distance between the subject and the background. The greater this distance, the greater the chance there is of the shallower depth of field coming into play and that of the subject standing out.
Take the images above for example. The following illustration will show the difference in terms of background for both.
In the illustration where the photographer is standing up, the background consists of the ground immediately behind the bird. The less the distance between subject and background, the lesser the blur of the background is achieved.
Where the photographer is lying down, the background is almost infinity (a significant distance away from the bird). The greater the distance between subject and background, the more blur of the background can be achieved.
With that rule understood, you will be able to apply it in the field that much better. Here are a few more examples of eye-level wildlife photography.
Now that we have established the advantage of going to the eye-level of the subject, let’s take a look at a few ways to go about doing that.
This is the easiest to do, as you just have to lie down, right? Well, I wish it was just that. If you are in a vehicle and are close enough to the subject, then try to get down on the ground with minimal to no noise and generally very slowly. Try and make moves only when the subject is looking away. Once you are flat on the ground, try not to make a lot of burst shots immediately. Let the subject get accustomed to you first.
Take a look at the image below. It is a pair of lions in the African savannah.
Quite often, wildlife photography is done in reserves or national parks, where getting down from the vehicle is not allowed. So what can you do in such scenarios? This is where your field-craft comes in handy. Know your subject and you will be able to predict its movement.
For example, take a scenario where you have a big cat walking on a road (they seem to like doing that don’t they?). You could either stop where you are and fire-off a few shots. OR you could take a moment to evaluate the animal’s potential path and wait at a location where the road is slightly lower than where you are currently situated. A lower elevation for the vehicle would ensure a better connection with the subject when it walks towards you. Take a look at the simple sketch below to give you an idea.
This one has to do mostly with shooting on the beach. If you are into shorebird photography quite often you will find yourself on a sandy beach because those are the areas where your subjects are found. It is generally not very easy to get up-close to these guys using your vehicle so you have to start crawling from a safe distance.
I have noticed that shorebirds allow you to get really close-up as long as you are willing to put in that effort to crawl and not rush in on them. Here is an example of the result of a 50-foot crawl.
Yes, get those elbow and knee guards ready because it isn’t the easiest thing to do. Especially if you are carrying a big lens around. A contraption like the ground pod helps a lot in this situation to push the gear easily.
Sometimes, when you are in a vehicle, getting to eye-level might simply mean standing up. Look at the following two images. Both clicked at the same spot, one while I was sitting down and the other when I decided to get up to eye-level.
It makes a world of a difference right? Now please remember that even when you are doing a simple thing like standing up, you need to be very cautious and slow in your approach. Wildlife does not like sudden movements, it spooks them.
As with everything in photography, practice makes life much easier in the field, so here is my advice for the eye-level approach. Initially just try it without the camera. See if you can understand the mood of the subject. Remember, make no alarming or sudden movements and be as quiet and slow as possible.
Once you are able to do this with a certain degree of success, you are ready to then bring out the camera gear and give it a go. Remember, this is quite a lot like being a predator. You will not have a 100% success rate. Just make sure that when you succeed, you make full use of it. What I mean is, make sure that before you get down on the ground, you have chosen the spot well for a good background and you have taken into account the light on the subject.
So get out there, and practice and share your wildlife photography eye-level images.